The Parable of the Straying Sheep Who Wander Off
We Also Have a Natural Tendency to Wander and Get Lost
Matthew 18:12-14 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12-14).
In this passage, Jesus is telling this parable to His disciples. This is similar to the Parable of the Lost Sheep told in Luke 15. There is a notable difference however in Jesus’ audience and the words used in each of these parables. In Luke Jesus is talking to the Pharisees (unbelievers) and here in Matthew Jesus is talking to His disciples (believers). Although the parable in Matthew 18 is referred to as the Parable of the Lost Sheep, a more fitting title for this parable might be the “Parable of the Straying Sheep” due to the context and language used in this passage. Let us now review the passage:
The people of Jesus’ day understood the relationship between shepherds and sheep that is sometimes lost on us today. Sheep are basically helpless creatures who cannot survive long without a shepherd, upon whose care they are totally dependent. Likewise, like sheep, we are totally dependent upon the Lord to shepherd, protect, and care for us. Also, the shepherd must lead his sheep because they cannot be driven. Instead, the sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him just as we as believers today listen to our Shepherd, Jesus Christ and His word and follow Him.
The Old Testament is filled with imagery of God as a Shepherd. The tending of the sheep was a common vocation in Palestine and each of the disciples would have been familiar with its practices at least to some degree. They would have taken this question as being rhetorical, which it was, for of course the shepherd would have left to search for his lost sheep. Shepherds knew their flocks well and it would not take a long time for them to become aware that one of their sheep was missing and could be in possible danger. He would see that the rest of his sheep were safe and then he would begin to search for the missing one.
In this passage Jesus uses the analogy of a shepherd searching for lost sheep. Shepherds took the responsibility of caring for sheep very seriously. They loved the sheep and would do whatever they had to in order to protect them. So, if one sheep wandered off or strayed, the shepherd would leave the rest in the care of another shepherd and search high and low until he could bring the lost sheep home. In the same way Jesus uses this analogy of the shepherd and the straying sheep to describe how much God loves us. Jesus teaches that each of us is important enough to warrant individual attention from God. Each of us are His children and are important in His eyes – even those that go astray
The analogy here is wonderful for it tells us that each and every one of God’s sheep is personally and individually cared for. It does not matter which sheep went astray, the shepherd would go and search for it. The Lord is equally concerned for each of us that belong to Him. Your position, wealth, fame, or power does not make you more or less valuable to Him. A poor Christian living in sin that wanders away is as important to God as a respected church leader that stumbles into sin.
God is patient with His wayward children, and He seeks them out. Even as God called out for Adam in the garden, so He calls out for you and me to respond and come back to Him when we stray and or try to hide from Him. He does not just wait for us to return on our own but seeks us out to rescue us. Jesus makes it clear that God delights in seeing lost sheep reclaimed.
In verse 13 Jesus tells us that there is much rejoicing when a lost sheep is found. When a believer who has gone astray has been restored, there is a special joy, not because they are more valuable, but because of the special concern evoked in the shepherd because of the danger they were in – being lost. It is the same way in a family when a child is seriously ill. That child receives more attention and care than the rest of the children. When that child does get well, the special rejoicing is not over the children that remained healthy, but the sick one that has been restored. That is the special joy spoken of here in Scripture when a wayward believer is returned to the fold.
The point of the parable is the finding of the one, not the leaving of the ninety-nine. God does not abandon the ninety-nine. In the parable the ninety-nine are already safe in His kingdom; attended by His angels and guided by the Holy Spirit. In 2 Peter 3:9 we find that God wants to save all who are lost, for He is “…. not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Then in this parable we read: “So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (Matt.18:14).” Again, the point is not that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine, but his pursuit of the one straying and his joy at retrieving it. In the same way, God not only brings us as sheep into the fold; He leads, guides, and protects us as we follow Him. He is our everlasting Shepherd. Yes, it delights God’s heart when lost sheep come back into the fold.
HOW MIGHT WE WANDER AND STRAY AWAY FROM THE SHEPHERD?
We need to remind ourselves that we were all lost at one time, and the Lord came after us. If God had not taken the initiative, no one could be saved. Yes, we tend to be like sheep consumed with worry and fear following after one another. So, by not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice, we can easily be led astray by others to our own destruction. In Psalms 23, God is using the analogy of sheep in their nature to describe us. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander off and get lost. As believers we tend to do the same thing. It’s as Isaiah has said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way (53:6).”
Likewise, within our own nature there is a strong tendency to go astray, following the lusts of our flesh and the eyes, and pursuing the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). As such, we are like sheep wandering away from the Shepherd through our own futile self-remedies and attempts at self-righteousness. It is our nature to drift away (Heb. 2:1).
The reality is that sheep stray and that we as Christians also stray from our Shepherd from time to time. You may even hear or know of believers like this today. Yes, genuine believers may struggle and go astray for a period of time. Perhaps a busy job is a drag on their time, and they slowly drift away from the Lord. Perhaps a serious trial weakens their faith, and they are confused and struggling. Perhaps another brother or sister has sinned against them, and they are hurt. Perhaps they’re fighting against a particular sin in their lives but have not yet achieved victory. Yes, there could be multiple reason why a believer might stray but what we do know from this parable is that we are very precious in His eyes, and we learn that God has a particular care for everyone, especially for those who have gone astray – that God is watching out for us always.
In closing, this parable shows us that God is the Great Shepherd of His sheep and it tells us something about His character. In this passage, Jesus shows us the heart of His Father and gives us a glimpse of God’s love and forgiveness (v.14). That He is always looking for us, no matter how far we turn away. It also tells us something about ourselves, that no matter how far away from God we may feel ourselves to be, or how difficult things might get for us, we only have to turn to God and He will look after us.
Just wanted to share this with you. This posting brings back memories when I used to go around to various seniors’ residences around Vancouver after I retired and entertained the seniors by playing songs to them. At times when I played hymns, I would give them a bit of a background on the author and tell him something about their lives. On this one particular hymn I would tell them that the author at the age of 11 joined his father as a sea merchant from England. The merchandise sold was human flesh. He was a slave trader transporting slaves from Africa to America (West Indies).
During one of his trips back from West Africa with his cargo of human flesh travelling to the West Indies he encountered a violent storm where it seemed that there was no hope and that he, his crew, and his cargo of slaves would be lost. In desperation he got down on his knees and prayed and asked God for mercy to save him, his crew, and his cargo of human life from death which God did. He was able to safely deliver his human cargo when they landed in the West Indies.
Because of a change in his heart and what happened (God’s grace and mercy) he never went back to West Africa. Instead, he went back home to England where he dedicated his life to God – with a definite call to study for the ministry. At the age of 39 he became an ordained minister of the Anglican church at a small little village near Cambridge, England.
While in ministry John Newton wrote a hymn (reflection of his own life) which is probably the most popular and most compelling hymn of all time. Calling himself (slave trader) a “wretch” who was lost and blind. The first and second stanza goes like this:
Amazing Grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!
I never get tired of listening to this encouraging Hymn. How we were all lost at one time or other and God found us. If God could change John Newton’s life around, a former slave trader, he certainly can change your life and my life around.
F/B – Signs Of Our Times